Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/474

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
470
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

the two remaining ones have peculiarities which greatly restrict their significance. Indeed, a moment's reflection would be sufficient to convince one that things are not as bad as they look through the professional glasses of Professor Münsterberg. If our immediate perception of the things around us, or even our judgment of times, distances, velocities, etc., were as desperately deficient as the whole tenor of Professor Münsterberg's article implies, the world could not be carried on as it is. Business transactions take place every day by the hundred million which turn on the unhesitating recognition of a rarely seen face, and the number of cases of mistaken identity is infinitesimal in comparison; we cross in front of trolley-cars and automobiles and bicycles millions of times just near enough to escape being run over, to once that we actually get run over. To translate that fine judgment of time and distance which brings us safely across Broadway into terms of feet and seconds is a task that most of us perform extremely ill; but this is a particular matter affecting the value of testimony of a special kind, and not touching the general reliability of human observation. This latter is itself undoubtedly highly impeachable; but Professor Münsterberg's tests add little, if anything, to the impeachment.

But there is another side to Professor Münsterberg's article. It is designed not only to show how frequently observation is untrustworthy, but also to advocate a method of classification of witnesses by which the trustworthy ones may be separated from the untrustworthy. "The progress of experimental psychology," he says, "makes it an absurd incongruity that the state should devote its fullest energy to the clearing up of all the physical happenings, but should never ask the psychological expert to determine the value of that factor which becomes most influential—the mind of the witness." That an appeal to psychological experts may in certain special cases be necessary or desirable I do not at all wish to deny; but it seems very clear to me, from the evidence of Professor Münsterberg's own paper, that any attempt to introduce psychological tests as a regular part of the machinery of courts in their dealings with witnesses would be utterly futile. It is conceivable that psychological experts who combined the highest scientific attainments with the most consummate common sense, and the greatest precision of reasoning with the utmost practical caution and shrewdness, could, by subjecting a witness to a sufficiently comprehensive examination, arrive at an authoritative determination of the weight that ought to be attached to his account of the facts which he alleges to have come under his observation; but nothing short of this would suffice. The difficulties in the way are many and great; but first and foremost among them comes the distinction between a laboratory experiment and the involuntary or unregulated experience of real life. Certainly accuracy of observation, whatever other elements it turns on, turns very largely on the question of attention or interest;